There can’t be many wine cellars or personal collections in which white wines are more plentiful than reds — although there may be the odd exception to this rule in Germany, whose white wines outnumber reds and have a great track record for ageability.
Riesling, the signature grape of Germany, makes wines that are virtually immortal, in my experience. Not only do opened bottles of Riesling last weeks if kept reasonably cool, but the wines continue to improve in bottle for decades. At present, I am happily drinking examples from the 1980s and 1990s.
They tend to taste drier with time, so that a Spätlese, for example, whose natural grape sugar may have been pretty obvious when the wine was young, can be quite dry enough to serve as an aperitif after a decade or two in bottle. And the nuances of flavour, the crystalline expressions of the vineyard responsible for the wine, should be all the greater. A lower-alcohol alternative to a sparkling wine perhaps?
Even a mass-market Riesling, wherever it’s grown (and there are particularly fine examples not just from Germany but also Alsace, Australia and Austria), will last much longer in bottle than wines made from other grapes. Whereas many supermarket whites should be drunk almost immediately, I would have no qualms about keeping a supermarket Riesling for a year or more.
Like rosé, Sauvignon Blanc is an obvious candidate to drink young. Certainly, most inexpensive examples are best enjoyed before their aroma and fruit — their chief attributes — start to fade. Yet some examples, especially those aged in oak and some of the more sophisticated, terroir-driven Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés, are deliberately designed for a longer life.
Wines based on Chenin Blanc grapes, mainly from the Loire or South Africa, don’t seem to age very quickly. Ditto Jurançon from south-west France based on Petit Manseng grapes.
This may be because, like Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Petit Manseng are relatively high in acidity. (So is Sauvignon Blanc but it’s the precious Sauvignon aroma that can be so evanescent.) I tasted an inexpensive 2019 Chenin Blanc in a can the other day (by The Copper Crew) that was still fresh as a daisy at nearly two years old. As was the 2017 Romanian Feteasca Regala that Tanners is selling for just £7.50 a bottle. It was screw-capped, which almost certainly helps by keeping out the oxygen that ages wine.
The one sort of white wine that absolutely deserves to be cellared is sweet wine whose sugar has been concentrated by the famous Botrytis cinerea fungus, sometimes called noble rot, which attacks ripe grapes and shrivels them, covering them with mould and working magic within the fruit. A really top-quality Sauternes can outlast even Riesling, helped perhaps by its extra alcoholic strength. To round off a birthday dinner in 2014, I enjoyed a Château d’Yquem that was exactly a century old and still very much alive and kicking. Various other Sauternes from the 1920s have been utterly glorious when tried over the past few years.
The ageability of sweet whites seems to depend on how they were made. Icewines, for example, which owe their sweetness to freezing, don’t seem to have the longevity of wines made from botrytised grapes.
The really big ageability question mark hangs over wines made from Chardonnay grapes. In very general terms, Chardonnay makes wines that are slightly more alcoholic and less acid than most of those described above, and because they are mostly aged in oak they are often exposed to more oxygen than, say, a Riesling, so tend to age a bit faster. Most American Chardonnays, for example, are ready to drink on release.
On the other hand, some of the greatest white wines in the world are fully mature white burgundies — all made from Chardonnay. I cannot remember tasting a more stunning dry white than the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1978 Montrachet I was lucky enough to taste to celebrate the new millennium.
However, the reputation of white burgundy has taken a serious knock since some of the wines made in the 1990s turned brown and lost their fruit after only very few years in bottle — a phenomenon known as premature oxidation, or premox. Burgundy producers have been doing their best to diagnose and correct the problem but it leaves people like me, who are expected to suggest ideal drinking dates for individual wines, extremely wary.
In pre-premox days, I would happily have suggested that a top-quality white burgundy could be kept for up to 20 years. Nowadays, I feel I may be risking it to suggest 10. And I would argue that the qualitative difference between a five- and 10-year-old white burgundy is less than the Riesling equivalent would be; Chardonnays seem to gain less complexity with time in bottle (wild generalisation alert).
The classic exception to this is Chablis, the far northern outpost of Burgundy, whose wines, all made from Chardonnay, have traditionally relied less on oak than acidity and really can evolve enormously and beneficially in bottle. I have enjoyed 40-year-old examples.
There is also the fact that today’s winemakers are making white burgundies that can be enjoyed much earlier than in the past. Although I have quite a bit of old white burgundy in my own cellar, it is there partly for experimental reasons. I would feel guilty insisting that everyone should follow my example. The great majority of the 300 2019 white burgundies I have so far had the pleasure of tasting seemed ready to drink now.
This is also true of white bordeaux, which is generally based on Sauvignon Blanc with a bit of Sémillon. Lately, I have been tasting a raft of 2018 bordeaux of both colours, as the reds were bottled relatively recently and so are much more worth judging than they were when offered as cask samples en primeur in April 2019. It struck me that quite a high proportion of the whites were past their best already, even though they are entering commercial circulation only now.
At least with many white burgundies offered en primeur, they are not just bottled but shipped sooner than the reds, which means they are far less likely to be over the hill once they reach the end consumer. See below for the general burgundy shipping protocols of UK merchants with offers of the popular and very appealing 2019 vintage.
More stockists from Wine-searcher.com. Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
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